Issue: June 2005
Without Reservation

The Laurrapin Grille, an “upstairs” eatery in Havre de Grace, Md., offers gourmet fare at “downstairs” prices.

 

“Look for the sign of the pig,” she told us. My friends Paul, Chelle, Nolah and I had just been to the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, and we were wondering where to go for dinner. The woman we’d asked hadn’t hesitated. Look for the pig. “Remember where Ice Dreams used to be?” she said. “Now it’s called St. John Gourmet, and upstairs they run a little cafe called the Laurrapin Grille. It’s the best food in town.”

     We couldn’t miss the sign on St. John Street-a carved wooden pig swinging high above the door of the carry-out. We ducked into the alley and climbed the long flight of stairs to the cozy clutch of rooms where every table was occupied. The main entrance, we were told, actually opens on North Washington Street (only three steps up). No matter. We were more daunted by the prospect of not being seated. Without reservations we might have been out of luck. As it happened though, the hostess had a party that was just finishing up, and after a brief wait on a comfortable sofa we were seated. Lucky us. 

     Just scanning the list of the evening’s specials was enough to convince us that our meal would be something extraordinary. The appetizers alone would have done the trick: smoked trout dip with spinach and sun-dried tomatoes, and half a pear poached in port wine and filled with Saga blue cheese. (We ordered both, along with a bottle of Australian shiraz.) The entree specials included Caribbean jerked chicken, red snapper, Mediterranean vegetable strudel, and shrimp and clam puttanesca. The regular menu listed appetizers like fried eggplant, smoked portobello, steamed mussels and, curiously, a little treat dubbed “Blackened Tuna Loin” (where exactly is a tuna’s loin, we all wondered?). For our main course, we could opt for meatloaf, pasta, steak-all described in delicious detail, and all just a tad different than what you might expect.

     For dinner Paul ordered the grilled wild salmon served with an orange cilantro marmalade sauce; Chelle went for the red snapper special, stuffed with seaweed salad and wrapped in leeks; Nolah decided on the meatloaf, the “famous St. John Gourmet recipe”; and I chose the crabcakes-lump crab bound together with lobster mousse. None of us was disappointed. The appetizers were generously portioned. We actually had to work at finishing off the trout dip, which had a delicate smoky flavor laced with a creamy binder. The poached pear disappeared more quickly, but only because it was smaller. The entrees came in good time and were presented beautifully. Portions were ample and each dish was accompanied by the chef’s choice of side dishes. Nolah had a mound of mashed potatoes to go with her meatloaf; the rest of had helpings of wild rice, and we all had a medley of fresh, firm broccoli, cauliflower and carrots on our plates.

     It goes without saying that we all swapped bites. The meatloaf was, truly, gourmet. It had the consistency of baked pat' (if there is such a thing), and had a savory, almost smoky, flavor. The seaweed salad inside Chelle’s snapper added a pungent overtone to the sweet fish. Paul’s hefty hunk of wild salmon was laced with tart marmalade, a wonderful complement. My crabcakes were simply dazzling.

     Arguably, the best way to eat Maryland blue crab is by itself, fresh from the steamer. But in the middle of winter when the lump isn’t as fresh as we’d like, adding a bit of this and that can jazz up an old favorite. The lobster mousse did just that. With each taste, a burst of lobster flavor was followed by the more mellow crab.

     Dessert goes without saying. The dessert menu changes every night; we had fresh bread pudding and a delightful creme brulee. But the bill was even more stunning: the four of us ate like royalty for under $100 (not including the wine). Next time, we’ll go in by the front door and make sure we have reserved seats! 

     The Laurrapin Grille is located near the north end of Havre de Grace, at 209 North Washington Avenue. It’s a couple of blocks from the Tidewater Marina, and about a quarter mile from Tydings Park. Open daily at 11 a.m. for lunch and dinner (Sunday brunch only). Lunch $5–$9.50; dinner appetizers $5.50–$9.50; soup and salad $4–$11.50; entrees $9–$22. Reservations recommended. Major credit cards accepted. 410-939-4956